This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.
The more technology advances, the more we rely on it in our everyday lives. Where we once called first to our family doctor, we may now look first to the internet to research our symptoms. DIY is easier than ever with YouTube tutorials.
Who needs an accountant when you have tax preparation software available for a quarter of the price. And, for a fraction of the cost of attorney time, we can access software to help us self-prepare a litany of legal documents, including a last will and testament. Sounds good, right? With all the resources readily available to do it yourself on the cheap, why not?
Not so fast. Television and movies present a dramatic picture of the probate process. Family, loved ones, and others just hoping for a windfall, all assemble in an attorney’s office for the “reading of the will.” Inevitably, in a dramatic reveal that may or may not involve tears and fainting, a widow learns that her deceased husband left their entire marital estate to his mistress, or the estranged children who paid little attention to their elderly mother in her old age discover they have been written out of her will in favor of her trusted housekeeper. In real life, probate matters are significantly less dramatic, and infinitely more tedious.
In will drafting, formalities must be observed. Those formalities vary from state to state, and a software program may not necessarily alert you to these intricacies. Something as seemingly simple as not having the proper number of witnesses to the signing may make it invalid. And, the fact that you know what you mean does not prevent heirs and potential heirs from interpreting it quite differently. If a term is accidently left out, or if you fall back on language like “according to law,” you may end up with a result you never intended.
There is an old joke involving a plumber who marks an “X” on the pipe that needs tightened and then charges $500 for the work. When questioned on the seemingly outrageous cost for such a small amount of effort, he sends an itemized statement showing a charge of $5 for marking the “X” and $495 for knowing where to put it. The occupation, service and costs in this joke vary widely from telling to telling, but the point is that expertise is invaluable.
If you want to draft a simple document that leaves everything to your spouse, and then equally divides everything among your adult children if your spouse predeceases you, a simple software program could probably cut it for you.
If you want to write someone out of your will, divide assets in unequal measures, if you have minor children or may have more children after you draft it, if you have children from prior relationships, or want to include step-children, you could likely benefit from speaking with a professional. If you have some assets that get passed through other means, such as jointly titled real property, life insurance, or retirement assets, if your situation is anything but the most uncomplicated, or if you are doing more complex estate planning involving trusts and Medicaid planning, you are similarly better served to work with a knowledgeable attorney.
Ultimately, “knowing where to put the ‘X’” – or, in this case, knowing what questions to ask and how to properly reflect the answers in a valid will – may mean the difference between a relatively clean estate settlement and a bitter will contest.